In many ways, Baja California — Mexico’s primary wine region on the thin peninsula that juts due south from Tijuana — is defined by its lack of definition. “We don’t have an Appellation of Origin or even a Geographical Indication,” says Sandra Fernández, Mexican wine expert, winemaker, and wine director for Playa del Carmen’s Hoteles Xcaret. “So not having rules, not having these legal frameworks you have to attach yourself to in terms of production, makes it possible for change to happen fast.” Premium winemaking has been on the rise in Baja California since the 1980s, making leaps in quality in the last decade and seeing a steady incline in both wine production and wine tourism in recent years.
Unlike most wine regions, the lack of rules governing winemaking in Baja California results in an astonishingly diverse array of wines, including sparkling wines, atypical blends, and those from delicate grapes that unexpectedly succeed in Mexico’s mostly inhospitable climate, such as Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. Such variety is both a blessing and a curse to the region’s wine industry, according to Fernández. On one hand, such an eclectic approach may have stalled Mexican wine from gaining international attention: “Mexico never attached itself to a [single] grape as other New World regions have done successfully,” she says, “as with what happened with Argentina and Malbec, Chile and Carménère, and Australia with Shiraz.” On the other hand, this has allowed ambitious winemakers in Mexico to individually discover what they could best produce, capitulate as needed, and deliver accordingly — resulting in quality wines in every category.
Because of its unique, peninsular geography in the northwest corner of Mexico, with cold Alaskan currents influencing the Pacific coast, Baja California has Mediterranean-like microclimates that make it possible for wine grapes to even grow in a country that mostly exists outside of the band of the 30-50 degree latitude area where wine grapes tend to thrive. (Despite Mexico not commonly being associated with wine, it actually boasts the first winery in the Western Hemisphere, Casa Madero, which was founded in 1597 and is still operational.) Agave-based beverage production in Mexico dwarfs wine production by a factor of at least 10,000 to one in terms of value and volume. Agave, a succulent, prefers hot and dry climates. Wine grapes? Not so much.
But the wine world has long held the belief that premium wine grapes need to struggle for resources in order to create world-class wines, and conditions in Baja California provide just that. While there are no rules governing winemaking, there is one important restriction governing grape farming that is emblematic of that struggle: In an area with low annual rainfall, growers in Baja California are not allowed to irrigate their vines using the municipal water supply. They can collect water for irrigation by digging to reach the water table, which can result in wines that express an unpalatably high salinity and mineral content if over-watered in this way.
This defined Baja California wines for many years, according to Fernández, until more educated consumers helped change course for the region’s winemakers: “[Drinking the wine] was like eating oysters,” she says. “That was a style that some winemakers respected and protected, until we had a more knowledgeable consumer.” Such knowledge is thanks to an increase in popularity in wine in general among Mexicans in the last couple of decades, especially when it comes to high-quality Spanish wines. “It was around 2015 or so that wineries started to aim for more elegance while still keeping a kind of edgy salinity and umami, but in a way that is not over the top,” says Fernández. Winemakers such as those at Cavas Valmar and Torres Alegre have helped move Baja California wines forward by experimenting with elements such as longer bottle aging or micro-oxygenation to further increase the finesse of the region’s wines by increasing secondary characteristics and better integrating assertive tannins.
For now, Baja California wines are primarily consumed within Mexico, but a few are making their way stateside, care of importers such as Patrick Neri Selections. Even among the few that are available to U.S. consumers, diversity of style remains the hallmark of wines from Baja California.